26. A paradise simulator
September 20th, 2020

Terra Nil
(File under: games, cities, devon, grids)

Play: vfqd.itch.io/terra-nil

The cities that SimCity 2000 allowed me to build did not look like the cities I knew growing up in rural Devon. Where were the cathedrals? Where were the remains of Roman walls peaceably absorbed by light commercial development? You’re telling me none of these streets are cobbled? That can’t be right. As this talk says, while the SimCity series promised you the city of your dreams, you always inevitably ended up with something that looked like Phoenix, Arizona.

Screenshot of SimCity 2000

Not that I had any idea what Phoenix looked like at 10 years old, playing the game in the home offices of my friend’s fathers, on regulation beige desktop PCs that grunted and whirred like mechanised warthogs. Over a decade before I would live in a North American city built on a grid system, I had limited interest in city planning—I was too busy fawning over SimCity 2000’s isometric pixel art: boxy coal plants with puffing smokestacks, neat two-lane roads with ant-sized cars, futuristic glass-domed arcologies destined for outer space. To this day I still have a lot of time for games that tiptoe around a similar style, but they’re few and far between. Luckily, when you start looking for games almost exclusively based on whether or not they contain good rain, you end up in some unexpected places. Case in point: Terra Nil.

If SimCity asks you to build and maintain the infrastructure of a vast, pixelated metropolis, Terra Nil asks you to clean up the resulting wasteland when that metropolis bloats into toxic oblivion. Pump fresh water into dry river beds, detoxify barren earth filled with centuries of pollutants, and create multiple biomes so that wild animals begin to tentatively poke their heads out of the new wilderness. Listen to ambient drones, spare piano, and rain sounds while you do it? Don’t mind if I do.

Screenshot of Terra Nil

What really distinguishes Terra Nil from SimCity and other city building simulators, however, is that building isn’t really the goal. Once you’ve restored ecological balance, you must dismantle all of your equipment, pack it into a makeshift rocket and take off, leaving behind only a single crater. In a week when most of us on the west coast were kept indoors not only by lockdown, but by smoke and apocalyptic air quality, it felt like a small relief to restore a small square of earth floating in space to something like paradise.

Terra Nil is still in development, but is available for Windows, MacOS and Linux for whatever price you wish to pay for it.

Dept. of Enthusiasm is a charmingly sporadic email from me, Jez Burrows. You can read some past issues, or sign up below.